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If the coronavirus mutates, will a potential vaccine still be effective against it?

coronavirus vaccine
Photo via quapan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Scientists report that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is mutating—but so far, it does not mutate very often, and when it does, it doesn’t change very much. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate subcommittee on July 2 that the vaccines currently being developed should be effective against a coronavirus mutation, according to the Washington Post

“The good news is this is not like HIV. This is not like influenza,” Collins said. “It’s a fairly well-behaved virus that we think we ought to be able to tackle effectively with a vaccine strategy.”

All viruses mutate, according to Healthline. SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, which spreads by creating copies of itself and therefore is more likely to mutate over time as it creates more copies. Other RNA viruses include the flu and measles. 

One major difference scientists see between the original strain of SAR-CoV-2 and a newly discovered coronavirus mutation is that the newer strain that they believe mutated in Europe might be more infectious and less lethal than the original strain. Dr. Benjamin Neuman, the head of the biology department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana, told Healthline that future strains of the virus are more likely to be weaker than the original. 

Dr. John Rose, a Yale research scientist who’s helping develop a COVID-19 vaccine, told Healthline that the new coronavirus has mutated at a slower pace than other RNA viruses—like the flu, which mutates very fast and erratically—and it hasn’t deviated too far from its original genetic makeup.   

“The sequences of the original isolates from China are very close to those in viruses circulating in the U.S. and the rest of the world,” Rose said. 

NPR reports that vaccine developers had previously been concerned that the coronavirus would mutate genetic locations that affect the spike protein, the structure on its surface that allows it to invade cells. 

All of the potential COVID-19 vaccines fight the virus by teaching the immune system to recognize those spike proteins—so a genetic alteration would change the vaccine’s effectiveness. Peter Thielen, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, told NPR that the virus has not yet mutated in a way that alters those spike proteins.   

“The targets for vaccine design today remain the same as we would have designed them in January,” Thielen said.

However, experts do not know whether people will remain immune to the coronavirus after a single vaccination or if they’ll need periodical vaccinations, as people do for protection against the flu. 

Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, told Healthline that he believes the coronavirus will operate similarly to the mumps. The mumps vaccine has been effective for more than 45 years because the virus hasn’t mutated enough to invalidate the vaccine.

Collins told the Senate subcommittee that experts don’t yet know how the coronavirus will change over time. 

“We’re going to watch that very carefully, and the big question we all have is whether this is a circumstance where, once vaccinated, you are protected for life or whether, over the course of time, this virus will change its coat enough that you will need to have a booster that’s slightly better, designed for whatever it is this turns into next,” Collins said. “We don’t know the answer to that.”

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Sources: WaPo, Healthline, NPR  


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